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Jazz Wouldn’t Be the Same Without Them. But Few Applauded These Hidden Figures. – The New York Times

Jazz Wouldn’t Be the Same Without Them. But Few Applauded These Hidden Figures. – The New York Times


Jazz Wouldn’t Be the Same Without Them. But Few Applauded These Hidden Figures.
Dec. 26, 2018
Critic’s Notebook
Dexter and Maxine Gordon in 1976. Ms. Gordon’s new book about her husband, “Sophisticated Giant,” ends up shining a light on her own work, too.Dexter Gordon Archive

Dexter and Maxine Gordon in 1976. Ms. Gordon’s new book about her husband, “Sophisticated Giant,” ends up shining a light on her own work, too.Dexter Gordon Archive
In the 1970s, when she was in her 20s, Maxine Gordon had a revealing conversation with one of jazz’s most powerful impresarios. It was just a few years after she’d begun working as a producer and talent manager, and music had become her life.
In a recent interview, she recalled that the mogul had told her, “You have no future in this business.”
“I was like, ‘Oh, really? Why?’ Not that I cared,” she said. “And he said: ‘Because you like the musicians too much.’ I said, ‘So, we’re on one side and they’re on the other? I think I’ll stay with them.’”
There are many lessons to be learned from Ms. Gordon’s new book, “Sophisticated Giant: The Life and Legacy of Dexter Gordon,” a biography of her husband, the heroic bebop saxophonist, who died in 1990. One of them is what it means to stay by the musicians’ side. It’s a role that many have filled over the years — but one that’s rarely documented.
“Sophisticated Giant” is the product of decades of work and fulfills a promise Ms. Gordon, 68, made to her husband. If he was unable to complete an autobiography before his death, he had said, Maxine should go back to college and write his story. Ms. Gordon earned bachelor’s and master’s degrees and did graduate work at Columbia University’s Center for Jazz Studies.
She ended up writing a revealing, expertly researched history of Mr. Gordon’s life. But throughout its pages, we see Maxine Gordon almost as clearly as we see Dexter. And the telling is better for it.
The book signals a meaningful step forward in jazz scholarship by allowing us to see Maxine Gordon and women like her doing their work — the kind that has been done by essential figures off the bandstand to keep the jazz ecosystem healthy since its earliest years, typically without historical recognition.
Here she is, delving into her husband’s off-handed comments about his grandfather and coming away with the intriguing story of Capt. Edward L. Baker Jr., an African-American frontiersman and U.S. Army captain. There she is, convening a round table of Dexter’s old friends in Los Angeles, crosschecking the tales he used to tell about his childhood. Later in the book, Ms. Gordon doggedly investigates his run-ins with the law in the 1950s, when he was waylaid by a heroin addiction — a decade he refused to discuss.
Ms. Gordon was a back-room musicians’ champion even before she met her husband. Since his death, she has worked as a manager and consigliere to musicians including Louis Hayes, Bobby Hutcherson and Cedar Walton. “Nobody knows how to read a contract like Maxine,” said Farah Jasmine Griffin, a Columbia professor and friend of Ms. Gordon.
Drawing on her expertise, Ms. Gordon’s account of her husband’s early career includes some of the most incisive, unflinching criticisms of the midcentury music business on record. Explaining a system by which record executives swiped royalty rights from the musicians they employed, Ms. Gordon writes: “The confiscation of the music, the devaluation of their creativity, the notion that ‘spontaneous composition’ in jazz — improvisation — is inferior to the kind of composition that is done over long hours with pen and paper and the canard that players are not composers: All of this has plagued jazz history and caused economic hardship for musicians to this day.”
Lil Hardin Armstrong, Louis Armstrong’s second wife, played piano in his Hot Five and helped the band book gigs.Michael Ochs Archives/Getty Images

Lil Hardin Armstrong, Louis Armstrong’s second wife, played piano in his Hot Five and helped the band book gigs.Michael Ochs Archives/Getty Images
Along the way, “Sophisticated Giant” takes care to highlight the work of people like Hattie Gossett, a poet and performing artist who became a business associate and helped further Dexter Gordon’s career, and Helen Keane, who managed Bill Evans and mentored a young Ms. Gordon, encouraging her to face down industry sexism.
As some scholars have pointed out, being a jazz spouse often meant helping to book and manage an entire band (as Nellie Monk, Lucille Rollins, Dorthaan KirkLaurie Pepper and countless others did). But the story goes well beyond work performed by romantic partners. The life of Phoebe Jacobs, one of the great publicists and artist advocates in jazz, could fill volumes. Robin Bell-Stevens has spent decades as one of jazz’s most important behind-the-scenes figures — particularly in Harlem, where she now directs the Jazzmobile education program.
Greenwich Village’s jazz scene would have been a shadow of itself in the 1990s and 2000s without Wendy Cunningham and Lorraine Gordon (no relation), who ran its two most fabled clubs. Sue Mingus, like Maxine Gordon, has recovered the publishing rights to her husband Charles’s music, and elevated his reputation as one of jazz’s leading composers by organizing legacy ensembles — including the Mingus Big Band, which is now a decade into its weekly residency at Jazz Standard.
The history of unheralded characters who played critical roles as jazz organizers is as old as the music itself. When Louis Armstrong became the country’s most acclaimed musician in the late 1920s, his second wife, the pianist Lil Hardin Armstrong, was the one pulling him into the spotlight. She helped form the first groups that had his name atop the bill, including his landmark Hot Five, in which she played piano. To get gigs around Chicago, where they lived, she prepared scrapbooks full of rave reviews documenting his appearances as a side musician and took them around to club owners.
After the couple split, around 1930, the enterprising and well-educated Ms. Armstrong formed her own successful big band. The group’s relatively short life span suggests why a musician like Ms. Armstrong had such a well-developed set of business skills. “She could get anyone in her group because she was so respected as a musician. But they didn’t really promote her as a bandleader, so her bands weren’t as successful as male bandleaders’,” said Courtney Bryan, a New Orleans-based pianist and scholar.
Ms. Armstrong eventually stepped away from music, working for years as a clothier, restaurateur and teacher, though she eventually returned to performing. In this way, her story reflects that of another eminent 20th-century pianist, Mary Lou Williams, whose compositions, arrangements, piano virtuosity, organizing and mentorship made her one of the most versatile — and crucial — figures in jazz history.
An early collaborator with Duke Ellington and Andy Kirk (who made her his lead arranger), Ms. Williams was slow to take off as a solo act; again, presenters felt disinclined to promote a strong female instrumentalist. In the eyes of musicians, though, she was nonpareil. In the 1940s, Ms. Williams offered her Harlem apartment as a crash pad and a jam-session hub, as well as a safe haven for fellow players. In the 1950s, distressed with the jazz world, she converted to Catholicism and temporarily retired from the stage. But even in absentia, she supported the music by founding the Bel Canto Foundation, which raised money for struggling musicians. She funded it by running a thrift store.
“It was about community,” said Woody Shaw III, the recently appointed executive director of the Mary Lou Williams Foundation, who is also Maxine Gordon’s son. “There was a natural sharing of information, and Williams found herself often in a kind of matriarchal position. These men were younger than she was, and needed guidance and intervention — whether it was through her creating her own businesses and organizations that specifically accommodated the needs of musicians, or allowing them to stay in her home when they were having difficulties.”
Through his work with the foundation and with his own company, Moontrane Media Group, Mr. Shaw has himself become a crusader for artists’ rights, helping musicians claim copyrights and royalties for their work. Today, with jazz’s constricting gender roles slowly eroding onstage as well as off, Mr. Shaw describes himself as an inheritor of a mantle worn by figures like Mary Lou Williams and Maxine Gordon.
Mr. Shaw called himself an “amalgamation of these influences and values, over the generations.” He added: “I’m trying to help legendary musicians move into the 21st century, in terms of how they brand and market their legacies and tell their stories. And then there’s the question of, how do we help musicians gain a level of control over their economic and artistic destiny in this generation, a control that they didn’t have in the past?”
For all her devotion to the musicians she advises, Ms. Gordon describes this work in unsentimental terms. “It was a career that I did because people would ask me to do things that I didn’t know how to do, and I’d just find out how,” she said. “There’s improvisation in the way we do business. If something came up, we had to figure it out.”
Correction: December 26, 2018
An earlier version of this story misstated the year of Dexter Gordon’s death. He died in 1990, not 1987.


Jim Eigo Jazz Promo Services T: 845-986-1677 E-Mail: jim@jazzpromoservices.com



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